Once upon a time, you were created, brand new, and you had a purpose.
Some of you have been singers your whole lives, or rock climbers, or writers, or professional painters, or builders. Some of you have been whatever you are for so long that you can't remember how you got into it. Some of you are newly conferred - still on a honeymoon. Someday that will change and you'll have to work harder to remember why you fell in love with your calling.
What is a calling, anyway?
God's creation of the earth and of humanity can give us some clues - it was a joyful process. Do you remember how things ended up on the sixth day, right about the time it was finished?
"God looked over everything He had made; it was so good, so very good! It was evening, it was morning - Day six." - Genesis 1:31
Purpose in human life is another way for God to create. It's another way for God to make space for the Resurrection in real time. It isn't history. It isn't imagery. It's now. It's real. When we find purpose in our lives and embrace a sense of Joy we also are opening the door for "calling." Another word you may have heard is, "vocation." That's just another way to talk about calling. As I type this, I'm smiling to myself because, friends, you could turn this all around and it would work just as well - completely beautiful from any direction.
Several years ago I was challenged to find joy in my vocation. I had one foot in the world of Church Music and another in public education. With both of these jobs, I used my musical skills - I sang, played instruments, and taught other people how to do those things. I wanted to be a songwriter, though, and thought that a full time church job would give me more time and permission to pursue that. Hah! Think about that for a second. It's already selfish. Some of you can tell where the story will land us from that one bit of information. From that broken motivation flowed several years of heartache and growth. Broken feet walk broken roads, as it happens, and that's just what I've been doing.
Well, as I selfishly looked for a way to support my songwriting dreams, I hit road block after road block. One of the most painful things I ran into was specific to my voice - my internal instrument, created by God, and the instrument I'd been playing the longest. I found that well meaning folks were in agreement that it was not right for me to use my voice to sing these songs I'd been writing. It was suggested many times that my songs would survive better in the hands of more capable people and that I should seek a way to hand them off so that they could have a fighting chance. I tried to do that a few times and found road blocks there, too.
Not all of my friends and teachers shared that opinion, but the folks surrounding me right then where I was? They weren't keen on the hopes I was voicing. I listened to them. Singing became fearful. Classical singing, which had dominated my musical life for a few years, became a shameful thing because I'd been told repeatedly that classical singers can't write or sing newer music or folk music because "their voices just aren't shaped the right way." I felt like something had been taken from me. When I would go to sing classical gigs for a few years around that time I found that my success was suddenly mixed instead of consistent, the way it had previously been. It was like my ability to sing as a performer rather than a coach had been stolen from me. Knowledge I'd carried with me as a foundation for my healthy singing seemed to evaporate. It was sheer will power that pushed me ahead with songwriting and performing, but a cloud hung all around those experiences. A constant question - Will it work out this time or will I be disconnected from my breath, weak and unsteady?
Deep in my heart I knew that this "advice" about voices and abilities was a misconception. A myth. Of course a person can sing healthily and pleasingly across multiple styles. OF COURSE a person can LEARN NEW THINGS. But I'd never had time to work with a teacher on that sort of crossover singing. I'd been so busy chasing down the ability to teach others and coach others that I'd forgotten how to receive teaching and coaching for myself.
In the midst of all this confusion an opportunity for a full time church job appeared and then evaporated unceremoniously. There and gone. I was left bitter, confused, and jealous. If you've ever spent long in the company of disappointment or jealousy then you already know what it's like - it's suffocating. It's a bit like losing your innocence. Optimism is obliterated.
Mentally, it was a little bit like having my real piano taken away - having somebody tell me that I couldn't use the real one anymore because I only had the power to use a toy one - "Sorry, Hon, you're just not mature enough to play a real one. Here's a toy to practice on until you're good enough to play with the grownups."
Well, God is good.
Just today an old friend was talking with me about life and told me that God isn't surprised by anything. Specifically, she reminded me that God isn't surprised by our behavior or the behavior of others on our best and worst days. God made us. No secrets there.
God was with me through all of the above, friends, and I continued to write. Only by the grace of God did I have what I needed to get the words out.
God looked after me and also looked after the folks who had discouraged me . . . because they are also God's kids . . . and because God also wants them to prosper. Wow. That's heavy and uncomfortable, isn't it? God isn't out to get folks when we feel like they're not helping us or don't believe in us. God believes in us and God believes in others, too. There's room for all of us at the table, friends.
I lived in that discomfort for a long time. I remember riding in the car with several friends back then, all of whom were singing at the top of their lungs to a familiar song on the radio. I sat in the driver's seat with my mouth closed, meditating on my inability to make a beautiful sound, beating myself up. I sat in that car, not singing, for years. That experience was a moment in real time . . . and also a state of mind, pushing past the moment, reaching beyond my car.
There was no physical reason for my resonance to be gone. But it was gone 9 out of every 10 days.
There's a set of recordings I did for a good friend during those years - art songs by Ethan McGrath. Songs that sing what my heart wants to sing - melodies I'm pretty sure he unknowingly wrote just for me. Words that give me a sense of belonging and understanding. My part in each of those recordings should have sparkled. But my success there was sporadic because healthy technique is a brave thing and I'd lost so much of my bravery. Good singing is trust of yourself . . . an expectation that your mind and body will line up to do the job. I had no trust. So I had no reliable technique. You could've asked me about the rules that govern healthy singing and I could have rattled them off for you . . . but I couldn't consistently access them myself.
If I couldn't access my healthy singing in the world of classical music all the time, just imagine what the world of folk or what my own songwriting was like. I had years of classical training behind me at that point and I was just playing at folk and indie singing.
I'd sing a show on a Saturday night with good success and leave feeling encouraged. The next day I'd sing a special in church and would find it absent. Gone. Inaccessible.
Anybody get that?
Anybody know that place?
Well, all good stories have a point of conflict and some sort of impetus toward resolution. My story is a story started by God, just like yours, and so it's a good story even when it isn't a good time. Resolution and Resurrection are good friends and hang out together.
About 8 years after writing this song, I sat down in my living room, accessed healthy production, and resonated my way right through it. How did I get there?
A couple of things happened that helped me make my way out of the darkness I'd been carrying around. First, I had to forgive some people. Next, I had to forgive myself. And there are days, even now, when I have to forgive myself and other people over again . . . because I'm not perfect.
Then, I accepted that God had gifted me with the chance to plant my real career in the world of public school music teaching, and I stopped trying to pass that cup. So, when another full time church music gig was offered to me? God made it really easy for me to tell it wasn't right. God helped me to have a genuine love for what I was doing at the school. And the church job was offered to me with strings attached . . . strings that would have stopped the writing. So the natural path forward was obvious - I hang out with kids every day and I am encouraged by that community in my songwriting. It feels like home. It has a Joy about it.
After that? I began to say "thank you" to some people who had left doors open to me even in my confusion and hurt. Thank you to writer friends, engineer friends, classical singer friends, and folk singer friends. Thank you to God that I still had breath in my lungs, even if it wasn't connecting to my voice the way I wanted it to.
At that point I turned around to start facing some of my own fears . . . and I sought out counseling to help me with some anxiety problems that were decreasing my Joy in life. It was a wonderful choice, and God helped me to find a very healthy counselor to walk me through some new skills for emotional well being. Going through this counseling helped me to forgive even more folks I had been carrying around in my heart.
All of this brings me to the end of one story and the beginning of another.
One evening I was driving home from Girls Choir rehearsal, crossing over Harrison bay in the dark. I was listening to James Taylor's timeless tone and thinking about how healthy his singing was. I was wishing I could do that. Wishing.
I was wishing.
It was the first time that had occurred to me. I'd never prayed for it to be better. Or prayed to have the courage to fix it. I'd wished for it.
So I prayed the old, old prayer I used to pray while walking home from the bus stop as a middle schooler, "God, I feel lonely and strange. I feel like I can't find my place and like I don't want the right things. I don't think I can get all the way to where you are. Can you meet me halfway? If I keep on walking, will you start walking, too?" at which point, God spoke right into my heart the same thing I've felt as Truth before:
"I'm already here next to you,
but I'll give you what you need to walk the whole way,
knowing you're not alone."
I opened my mouth and started to sing alone with James Taylor, "Goin' to Carolina in my mind..." Several minutes later I was 3 songs into my new lease on life and singing. I got home and burst into the house rambling like a crazy lady about the experience I'd had in the car.
You see, friends, we can go on for years and years physically doing everything we think we need to in order to fulfill our "calling" or "pursue our passion," and that whole time we can be so emotionally unhealthy about it that we're unable to connect even to ourselves. It's a more common experience than we're willing to let on. The whole time I struggled with all these things I was singing gigs and helping out with concerts, coaching students of my own, and so forth. From the outside it may have looked like everything was going fine.
But I'm here to tell you - the voice I can sing with now? Today? It's not the same voice I had then.
And God didn't reach into my body to fix my voice or give me a new voice! This is the biggest beauty of all. God did what He has done for me before: God pointed out that God was already there and had already given me what I needed.
From that came trust, gratitude, and courage . . . and out of those things? My connection to the technique I'd known in my head was transported to my heart - and my voice was there. It had been there the whole time.
I'm not mad at God for the tough stuff that came before this. I'm grateful that God stood with me even when I refused to look at the good things God had already done.
Resurrection. A calling.
So . . . I'm an elementary school music teacher who writes songs. I can sing with a healthy voice in a whole bunch of styles, with lots of joy, because God planted a voice in my throat and lungs in my body, and because I woke up alive again today. My calling, as it turns out, is the same as yours: To live a grateful life and to offer all that I do from that.
Don't be afraid, Songbird. God hears you. God made you. God is not surprised by you or others. You have what you need to find that uniquely healthy resonance. Your life will ring with it.